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Bulbapedia says it's determined by an "independent value", so how does that value work? Is it simply a variable that's randomly set to something from 0 to 27? How do they make sure Unowns don't change form when transferred from generations 2 or 3 to a newer game? Please don't question my curiosity.

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It's random, but it isn't. Like in DPPt each room in the Solaceon Ruins had each form of Unown while the Unown in the Ruins of Alph have a random form each time you encounter them(excluding ! and ?)
I know Gen 2 based it on DVs and Gen 3 based it on PID, but I've not the faintest clue aside from that it's a unique identifier that's also used for various alternate forms of Pokemon, specifically Deoxys, Burmy, Wormadam, Shellos, Gastrodon, Giratina, Shaymin, Arceus, Rotom, and Pichu.
There's a page on Bulbapedia about it but information about how wild Unown are generated seems to not exist. I'll have to keep looking for more information.
https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Pok%C3%A9mon_data_structure_in_Generation_IV

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